Folded conveniently into the narratives about his “complicated past” was the detail about Kobe Bryant that could’ve wrecked him.
It was a rape allegation by a 19-year-old employee of a Colorado hotel. It happened in 2003. Some argued that making that life-altering detail a mere footnote to the stories detailing Bryant’s life and unexpected death was the human thing to do on such an awful day. Others felt it was another example of an icon being given a pass of sorts because he was a successful athlete.
While dozens of high-profile figures — including senators, movie producers, news anchors and comedians (but not the president or the newest Supreme Court justice) — have seen their careers vanquished by allegations of sex abuse and domestic violence, high-profile sports figures have skated past similar accusations at a far more frequent rate.
“We look up to them to win games,” said Miki Turner, a longtime journalist who is now a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “But we don’t really scrutinize their values as closely as we might for politicians or news anchors. I think there’s just a different line there.”
Here’s a quick list from the recent past: relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, running back Ezekiel Elliott, quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Ben Roethlisberger, Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton and Super Bowl 54-bound receiver Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs. All are among the sports stars who have had stomach-churning allegations levelled against them but have skirted major repercussions — from their leagues, the teams, law enforcement or, in large part, in the court of public opinion.
“There’s something about the instant gratification of having a game that night versus, say, being an actor and taking a year to make a movie,” said Courtney Cox, a former ESPN staffer who teaches a class on race and gender in sport at University of Oregon. “If (sports stars are) treated differently, part of that is the instant way they’re visible, and the way they are able to rectify and rebrand themselves” by the final buzzer of the next game.
In other words, winning makes up for a lot.
The case of troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown could be instructive. He was released by the Patriots earlier this season when rape allegations surfaced. The NFL is investigating the accusations, and not until that is over will we know what appetite teams might have to sign him.
Among the central questions in the Bryant story, and how his life is being remembered, is whether the pass he received in the obituaries and tributes was more about the passage of time than any bias toward him, or athletes in general.
It’s been 17 years since the allegations. A good section of Bryant’s fan base either wasn’t born, or was barely able to understand the news, when reports of his case first surfaced.
And yet, here we are in the #MeToo era, in which everyone’s past is easily researched on Google, and any transgression or poorly thought-out meme on social media is not only discoverable, but has the potential to change the narrative for any celebrity.
Allegations of sex abuse are levelled with greater frequency against the rich and famous; more of the accusers, but certainly not all, are increasingly treated with greater respect, and their complaints are being taken more seriously.
“I don’t know if something like that happened now, even with Kobe Bryant, if people would be as forgiving in this current climate,” Turner said.
But Bryant was a sports celebrity, not a movie, television or media star, and that reality almost certainly impacts the calculus, regardless of era.
“Sometimes, it’s OK to not have a right answer,” Cox said. “We’re all very morally righteous with our Twitter fingers. The idea of the black-and-whiteness of it all. But it’s not that easy. We grieve family members who had problematic pasts. But with athletes, it seems like we need a neat, tidy story even when it’s not always there.”
For celebrities who aren’t athletes — don’t play a game every other night, aren’t as frequently accessible for the media and therefore don’t have as many chances to shift the conversation — the story lines aren’t as malleable.
The torrent of allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 marked a turning point in the #MeToo era. Hollywood and, to some extent, Washington, took the brunt of the blame. Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Placido Domingo are a small part of a list of more than 250 public figures in entertainment, politics and media who have been accused of wrongdoing since the start of #MeToo. The majority have seen their careers either stymied or completely brought to a halt. There’s very little doubt over which paragraph in their obituaries will contain details about the lowest moments of their lives.
And while nobody sheds any tears about that, there’s an argument to be made that, with some exceptions, such as Woody Allen and Donald Trump, the leagues, the law and the public have meted out a different kind of judgment for them than for their brethren in sports.
Bryant’s case was litigated both in the media and the courtroom. But the case never went to trial, and though sponsors cut ties with Bryant in the aftermath, his losses didn’t last long. Bryant walked away from his charges — chastened and clearly a changed man. He issued an apology through his attorney and later settled a civil case brought by his accuser.
He missed a few games while attending hearings in the case, but the best of his career, and his life, was still to come.
In the 17 years that followed, Bryant became a father of four girls and a vocal champion of women in sports. He became even better known for his alpha-male psyche and his uncompromising work ethic. To some, he is the GOAT — Greatest Of All Time — in a sport that triggers plenty of discussion about that title.
But that’s not the only part of his legacy that’s open for debate.
Eddie Pells, The Associated Press